Career Arcs - Quarterbacks
By Heath Cummings
July 24th, 2012

Theories about age and fantasy football have been around for as long as the game itself has. Running backs fall off after age 30, wide receivers blow up in their third year, and so on. While there are exceptions to every rule, we've generally found that by following the statistical evidence we can avoid a majority of the pot holes on the road to our next fantasy championship. With that being said, what we really need is more statistical evidence, right?

Maybe the most difficult position to forecast based on age is quarterback. The reason is twofold. For one, we've seen quarterbacks succeed into their upper 30s with no noticeable decline. At the same time, some quarterbacks have a very short window of success before spending their later years holding a clipboard. The second factor is the way the game has changed over the last twenty years. Quarterbacks are dropping back to pass more than they ever have, but they're also better protected by the rules. With all that being said, I've taken a look at the career arc of 40 of the top all-time and active quarterbacks to see what if anything, the numbers say. First off, here is the data:

When I started this study I expected a flatter, longer arc than what you see in the chart above. A quarterback's prime looks to really begin in year four and last through year 10, with a strange blip in year 10. Even though the average fantasy production of a quarterback declines every other year between seasons six and thirteen, for some reason in sees a ten percent jump in the tenth year. The real anomaly is not the jump in year ten but the dramatic fall in season nine. The explanation is a large increase in the number of dud seasons out of ninth year quarterbacks. More than any other season during a quarterback's prime, year nine sticks out as a red flag for quarterbacks. Here's a look at the starting quarterbacks heading into their ninth season:

  • Tony Romo
  • Eli Manning
  • Philip Rivers
  • Ben Roethlisberger
  • Matt Schaub
  • Carson Palmer
  • If the trend holds true, two of these quarterbacks are going to put up duds in 2012. Of course, there is always a yin to the yang. The best year of a quarterback's career for a stud season was by far and away year eight. Nearly one out of every four quarterbacks in the study put together a stud season in year eight, that's more than 50% better than the second best year. Here's a look at your year-eight quarterbacks:

  • Aaron Rodgers
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick
  • Matt Cassel
  • Okay, so it's pretty easy to see who the stud is out of that group, but it's also important to note that year eight was also one of the safest years for these quarterbacks with only five dud seasons out of the 40 studied. The only years safer were years five and six, and here are those quarterbacks:

  • Matt Ryan
  • Joe Flacco
  • Matt Moore
  • Kevin Kolb
  • Matt Flynn
  • In no way am I saying that Kevin Kolb is a safer bet than Eli Manning in 2012, like everything else this must be taken in context.

    Like I did with the receivers, I also want to look at the decline. If the data shows that years 4-10 are the prime of a quarterback's career, what does that say for the big three quarterbacks that are well past that point of their career? This goes back to the changes we've seen in the NFL. I think rule changes to protect the quarterback are working to some degree, and that shows in the excellence of Tom Brady and Drew Brees, who should be entering the twilight of their career according to this data. I also think Peyton Manning's injury is plenty of warning that at age 35+ you cannot be surprised when a quarterback's body begins to give out. I do not like the odds of Peyton Manning returning to his pre-injury form, or ever becoming a truly elite quarterback again. I also think that every year it becomes just a little bit more likely that Brady or Brees begin their inevitable decline. After all, Father Time is still undefeated.

    Here's a look at my top 15 quarterbacks and where they fall on the career arc:

  • Years 1-3 (on the rise)
  • Cam Newton
  • Andy Dalton
  • Years 4-10 (prime)
  • Aaron Rodgers
  • Matthew Stafford
  • Eli Manning
  • Tony Romo
  • Matt Ryan
  • Phillip Rivers
  • Michael Vick
  • Jay Cutler
  • Ben Roethlisberger
  • Matt Schaub
  • Years 11+ (on the decline)
  • Tom Brady
  • Drew Brees
  • Peyton Manning
  • As always, feel free to provide comments or suggestions to cummings@footballguys.com.

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